Sunday 4 December 2016

Spreading happiness all over the world

Michael Dawson knows the importance of perseverance and determination when growing a successful business

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Michael Dawson of One4all gift vouchers in the frame with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Tony Gavin
Michael Dawson of One4all gift vouchers in the frame with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Tony Gavin

Giving gifts is a universal and long established practice - an act that demonstrates our appreciation and gratitude for those we care about. Whether to a friend, family member, work colleague or employee, giving gifts has become an accepted part of everyday life for most. However, trying to decide what type of gift to buy or simply trying to find the time to purchase a gift often means that our great intentions often remain just that - intentions.

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For this week's entrepreneur, Michael Dawson, it was just such a scenario that led him to set up his own business - The Gift Voucher Shop - in 2002. Months earlier, he had missed buying a gift for this mother because he couldn't find the time to travel across the city to make the purchase in person. The chastening experience made him realise that there had to be a better and more convenient way to buy gifts using vouchers that could be redeemed in a wide range of outlets.

Now, 13 years on, his One4all gift voucher card has become the leading brand for many gift givers throughout Ireland, the UK and Malta. Today too, the company employs 75 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €220m.

His is an inspiring story of vision - spotting a need - and of having the tenacity to pursue the opportunity with relentless determination.

"Our big picture vision is to spread happiness through thoughtful, versatile gifting solutions," explains Michael when I visit him in his headquarters in Swords Business Park, North Co Dublin. "We are especially proud that our gift cards are now available in 18,000 outlets throughout the country including post offices, Applegreen and Topaz filling stations, as well as online," he adds.

He excitedly shares with me how the company also recently introduced an innovative online feature that allows customers to take a photo of themselves, a friend or loved one and upload it to create a personalised gift card complete with their own personalised message.

Corporate sales have also become a big part of his business with many companies now using gift cards, instead of cash or other gifts, as a reward for their staff - especially at Christmas time.

"Our cards are eligible under the Benefit in Kind tax savings scheme that allows employers to give up to €250 worth of a gift to employees. Our cards are both a practical and versatile way of rewarding staff," he adds.

In addition to promoting their own cards, the company also works directly with many corporate clients to manage their internal employee loyalty programmes and points-based reward schemes.

For Michael Dawson, it has been a long journey to success and not been without its challenges. Michael grew up in Baldoyle in North Dublin. His first foray into the world of business came at a very early age when he ran the school sweet shop in his local primary school. After leaving school, he got his first full-time job as a youth worker with the Department of Education in Ballyfermot before going on to work for Fianna Fail as the party's national organiser. After the general election of 1989, he was appointed for a short time to the Senate - which he greatly enjoyed. However, the pull of business remained strong and the following year, in the midst of the soccer frenzy that gripped the country during Italia 90, Michael spotted an opportunity and decided it was time to start his own business.

"There was such a buzz around at the time but many people were complaining that they either couldn't get tickets or couldn't afford to travel to Italy for the matches - so I decided to bring the matches here to Dublin."

He organised the installation of four huge video screens in the RDS and created a real Italian feel, complete with Italian food and music. He even flew in medieval flag throwers from Florence to add to the atmosphere. It was an overwhelming success with more than 48,000 fans turning up to watch the matches there.

The following year, now on a roll, Michael decided to try his hand at another new venture. He had seen how popular drive-in movies were in the US and decided to bring the concept to Ireland. That summer, he set up large movie screens in the Phoenix Park. Unfortunately the summer turned out to be one of the wettest on record - and not only did it wash away his new concept, it also resulted in Michael losing most of the money he had made on his previous venture.

Not ready to give up the dream of his own business, he turned to the growing lottery card sector and after much investigation, developed and patented a series of musical-based lottery cards. Believing that his market lay in the US, that's where he headed. For the next six years he commuted back and forth, spending up to six weeks at a time there, in an effort to break into the US market.

"It wasn't an easy time as I was away a lot from my late wife Pauline and our three young sons," admits Michael.

However, despite his best efforts, he couldn't raise the investment needed and, after limited success, decided to return home to Ireland.

"I was totally broke by then," admits Michael. "In order to make ends meet, we had to convert our home into a B&B," he adds solemnly.

But it wasn't long before he began working on his next idea - the prepaid gift voucher card.

"The concept for One4all gift cards was born out of necessity. I had been tasked by my wife Pauline to get a hotel voucher for my mother for Christmas. But because we lived in Malahide and the hotel was on the other side of the city, Christmas came and went without me having an opportunity to go and get it," admits Michael. "When Christmas was over, I began to wonder why, in the age of the web, it wasn't possible to buy such a voucher in my local shop or online."

He then began researching the market, talking to retailers and potential customers and based on the positive feedback he received, he decided to go ahead and set up his new company.

However, things moved very slowly at the start. "We knew we had a revolutionary product that brought choice and convenience to customers, it still took almost three years before we were generating enough sales to confirm we actually had a future," admits Michael.

But there were other challenges too, such as raising the initial investment to launch.

"Our timing was a bit off. Having put months of planning and preparation into it, we launched just two days before 9-11 happened. So we ended up with only half of the money we were looking for" explains Michael. "However, in hindsight, it turned out a bit of a blessing in that it forced us to build a very lean operation - something that has stood us in good stead ever since," he insists.

In order to scale up, Michael took the strategic decision to partner up with An Post. With an existing network of over 1,200 outlets, they had a well-established and trusted brand - and it proved so successful that An Post later became the company's largest shareholder.

In 2004, the company launched in Malta and have been steadily growing the business there. Two years later, they launched in the UK where in addition to selling their own branded gift cards, they now administer budget cards on behalf of the Royal Mail. Recently, they became the official supplier of gift cards to British Forces overseas .

"We have also been granted an e-money licence from the UK Financial Controllers' Office and were accepted as members of VISA in our own right. This opens up opportunities for us to start looking at other countries," adds Michael.

Now that One4all has become a household brand, does he see room for further growth?

"We are continuously working on new products and new opportunities and over the next three to five years, we believe that we can double turnover to over €400m," responds Michael.

"We have a really great team here who are critical to our success. And I am also incredibly proud of their commitment to corporate social responsibility, which is a core part of the company's culture," he adds.

Each year, he and his staff cycle to raise money for development projects in Haiti set up by members of the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards group, of which Michael is an active member, having been a finalist in 2007.

For the past three years too, his company has managed the Junior Entrepreneurs Programme, (started by Kerry entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly), which supports over 1,100 children in school-based enterprise education programmes throughout North County Dublin.

After more than 13 years in the business, Michael Dawson still loves what he does. He gets great satisfaction from his company helping to spread happiness through their products. In particular, he is proud of creating jobs in his local area - something that really matters to him.

As he looks back on his life and career, he can take pride in having got to where he is now. Having heard his story and that of One4all, you can't but feel that Michael Dawson has earned whatever success now comes his way.

Michael's advice for other businesses

1 It takes more time than you think

"Whatever length of time you expect it will take to get your business up and running, double it - then double it again. Then you should be okay. You have to plan for this early stage and allow time, while at the same time continuing to push forward all the time."

2 Have adequate start-up funding

"Again, it always takes more money to launch your business than you expect and you usually make less money than you initially envisaged. If possible, try to ensure you have enough funding in the beginning to get your business to a profitable position as quickly as possible."

3 Build management capability early on

"It is important to surround yourself with good people especially in the early days. Pull together an advisory board who you can use as a sounding board or as mentors. There are lots of experienced people out there who are willing to offer support - but you have to ask."

One4All, Swords Business Park, Swords. Co. Dublin. Tel: 01 8708 000 Website: www.One4all.ie

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